Activists Meet the Academy: GVO Summit Day 1, Session 4

Participants of the fourth session of Global Voices first day of its Summit 2008, discussed the tools to help create better internet access while maintaining anonymity. The session, which carried the title “Front Line Activists meet the Academy: Tools and Knowledge,” provided hands-on information for internet users from repressive states and those with freer governments.

Nart Villeneuve, an internationally recognised expert on internet access issues argued that during the so-called net 2.0 generation, the fight for internet access and anonymity has become global where even in so-called liberal democracies, activists critical of local governments have become victims of censorship. Yet, the fight for internet privacy affects all computer users. Villeneuve struck a common theme throughout the hour-long discussion: Civil libertarians have more to worry from corporations than repressive governments. That’s because some authoritarian governments may harass bloggers, block certain news and social media sites and attack activists and cyber dissidents, but these crimes may not be carried out thoroughly. On the other hand, corporations systematically track net users’ movements on the web and indefinitely store this information.

What becomes of this intelligence is unknown. Civil libertarians worry that companies could be bullied by governments to provide the information. Or worse: Companies, looking for a better economic foothold in larger markets like China and India, could willingly restrict certain features (like chat) or hand over user data on specific bloggers. Users should be aware that when following commercial firms’ weak civil liberties track record, one should not be taken by surprise, argues Danny O’Brien from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “All these companies will make these compromises” to stay in business, he says.

Making things better for users around the world, O’Brien argues, is that internet communication is moving away from centralised platforms like Google’s Blogger and MSN chat toward more decentralised social sites like Facebook, Live Journal and Skype, which provides encrypted chatting.

Another result, Villeneuve says, has been the creation of a number of programs to assist those seeking to access blocked sites or remain anonymous from traffic analysis. Problems remain that users have a variety of security choices, no single tool offers complete anonymity. More importantly, users need to understand the threats against them before choosing such a tool.

One of the internet’s best opportunity for users to remain anonymous is Tor, codeveloped by Roger Dingle. The product was not envisioned to be an anticensorship tool. Rather, Dingle’s group was originally funded by the U.S. Dept. of Defense and designed to allow users to travel the internet anonymously. It became popular with law enforcement officers setting up sting operations and corporate interests wishing to check out the competition without leaving tracks. However, a handful of news gathering organisations like Voice of America and Internews have also provided funding so that people to view their content from countries where it has been blocked

According to the Tor site, the product works like this: Instead of providing a single, straight path to a desired web page (or computer), Tor uses a series of constantly changing encrypted links through several servers, making it nearly impossible for a single observer to track a user.

“They don’t know where you are going or where you have been.” Dingle says. “It lets people do for themselves what they need to do.”

Isaac Mao, one of China’s first bloggers, has experienced his share of internet censorship. When a government like China moves to limit access to certain sites, Mao says, it acts as a form of self censorship to all Chinese citizens, no matter where they reside. “When I am out of the country, I still don’t dare to access some blogs, even though I can,” he said. “… I can’t break my mindset.”

Mao and others have began a system where people can create their individual domain names, which will be hosted on different servers around the world to keep users’ content secure and constantly online. This will protect blogs from getting hacked. Or, if your blog is restricted in some countries, to keep it online by changing addresses very quickly. Mao calls his group’s “collaborative model” — which means not having a permanent office — allows the service team to keep servers up without worrying about authorities.

While bloggers in various countries worry about obtaining access to the internet, groups and organisations providing relief and human rights work must understand that the most basic security threats now belong to e-mail programs, which has become a fundamental form of communication.

Because issues vary by geography, there is no single solution for keeping the lines of communication open for these groups. What organisations need to do, argues Robert Guerra, is begin sharing best practices and developers of security tools must better localise software and training manuals.

“Regimes are becoming more sophisticated [with their xxx] that e-mail is not being received or being disappeared,” said Guerra, a internet privacy expert based in Canada. “Skype and chat are also being blocked.” He said that cell phones — which he called “the portable spy you carry in your pocket” — are also being targeted.

O’Brien from the Electronic Fronteir Foundation argues that users would be better finding internet access and ID protection through open source software, which has a very decentralised business model. Users should be looking from the companies or organisations that create this software is an amount of trust, continuity, or proof they have been around for a long time, an amount of good publicity about the product and a funding stream so they will be around in the future.

Originally posted on GlobalVoices Summit 08

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