One of the censorship nightmares experienced by web-connected citizens living in countries engaging in Internet filtering is to find out that they can no longer access their favorite sites. Unfortunately, this is what is happening to the Flickr.com community in Iran and in the United Arab Emirates, where, a few weeks ago — and for the third time — the Internet service provider, Etisalat, decided to ban access to Flickr after the UAE Flickr community fought so hard to get it back.
However, and while repressive regimes are particularly effective in building substantial Internet filtering systems and at creating an atmosphere of fear in which people censor themselves, there are amazing individuals who are making a difference. In the asymmetrical battle — individual vs. State — taking place between two parties with vastly different resources, a few freedom-loving people have been taking on the sophisticated state censorship machine, armed with nothing but their passion and creativity. One of these people is the young Iranian Hamed Saber, Flickr fan and very talented photographer. One month ago he launched a Firefox extension called Access Flickr!, that enabled his fellow citizens to circumvent the flickr.com filter. I recently discovered this fascinating extension on flickr.com, where Hamed Saber presented it and invited the UAE Flickr community to try it for their country.
I'm aware that the existence of this extension does not mean very much to the large majority of average internet users who don't know that the Web is not that big blue e on the desktop screen. But what I certainly know is that this tool does matter to those who want to take back the web and get back the magic of Flickr. So, I couldn’t wait to talk with Hamed by e-mail about his initiative and the hole that such technique might open in the firewall of digital censorship:
Sami Ben Gharbia: Why did you set up the Firefox extension Access Flickr!?
Hamed Saber: As I said in the extension home page, in my country (Iran), unfortunately, flickr.com is banned. I'm a fan of that photo-archive website, so I wrote this extension just to help my dear friends who can not access flickr.com from Iran.
SBG: What purpose does Access Flickr! serve?
HS: I think all human beings have the right to choose what is good and what is bad for themselves. The “Big Brother” theory is not logical and ethical to me. Yes! Of course. I don't want to say that parental control should not be happening just because of freedom and information access rights! No! I mean NO ONE has the right to censor ANY THING for me and for others without our permission! We can decide what is good and what is bad for us, better than those!
SBG: Do you think that it is helping people (Iranian and others) getting access to flickr.com?
HS: Yes. It helps all Flickr members (and viewers) who want to access this great website in Iran, UAE, China and other regions in which this site is blocked there. Of course if they try to block this extension, they can do it, but then I'll develop another bypassing way.
SBG: Are you aware of any other initiatives like yours using Firefox extension as tool to bypass censorship?
HS: No, I didn't hear or read anything about (if any).
SBG: Can you provide us with some technical details about how this extension works? Is it a sort of proxy like TOR?
HS: It is so simple! Not sophisticated and powerful like TOR! This extension just substitutes some parameters in HTTP request header before sending it, and after receiving the response, again it substitutes some other parameters in the HTTP response header. The source code is not encoded, and the extension is open source, anyone can read the simple source code!
SBG: When did you release the first version of Access Flickr!?
HS: The first releases (versions 1.0 and 1.1) were not published, and I just sent them to my friends for testing, but the first published version was 1.2 which was released on Jan 12, 2007.
SBG: Does Access Flickr! use a built-in proxy IP or does it bypass the local DNS server query by resolving directly flickr’s DNS?
HS: No, not at all! It just substitutes the HTTP headers with some constant parameters which are not blocked yet! I mean everywhere I found that flickr was blocked, the firewall blocks *.flickr.com, or in UAE just www.flickr.com!
Some friends in UAE are using other URLs such as www3.flickr.com with tweaking the Yahoo! login page redirector URL, but this trick is not working in Iran, because they banned *.flickr.com, so even if the user uses an IP address for connecting, he/she can neither see the images nor CSS or JS files. But this extension substitutes all those host parameters with alternatives, plus substituting the passed cookies with proper ones.
SBG: You said that the extension is open source and that anyone can read the simple source code. Is it possible then to tweak the code for other censored websites in other repressive countries? If yes, where can we find the code?
HS: No, it is not always possible for tweaking and reusing it. It depends on the site. For example orkut.com is blocked in Iran too. But this trick won't work for it because Google web servers are obligated to response to true host requests, and if you ask them for some other host parameter, they respond you with a direct HTTP header. The source is included inside the extension file. You can check the development zone of Mozilla.org for learning how to check and use it.
SBG: Proxies are usually slowing down the internet connectivity, is this also the case with this extension, I mean does the requested webpage needs more time to be displayed?
HS: No, not at all! The speed is like the time you are not filtered!
Thus, thanks to such bypass techniques, the decision taken in October 2006 by the Iranian government to ban high-speed internet turned ridiculous since it won’t slow down the connection to flickr.com. As one commentator -among numerous of others who had welcomed the extension- has said “Now, it's the time for just sitting at the front of your PC/Notebook with a cup of coffee and browse Flickr as easy as drinking the Coffee!”.The amazing thing about this technique is that it does not require any advanced technical knowledge of proxy server configurations. Users are able to use it without having to go through a complicated installation process. “Just install the extension and restart your browser.” (see the animation below).
SBG: So thank you Hamed for your gift to the passionate Flickr community and may this genius idea inspire other developers to make more breaches in the dam of the Internet filtering.