News

Agency uses circumvention tools to advance democracy

As humorless border guards and red-penned press censors have given way to Internet firewalls and denial-of-service cyberattacks, the federal government's international broadcasting arm has had to find new ways to support the free flow of information in repressive states.

The agency that once set up transmitters in Europe to overcome the Soviet Union's attempts to jam Voice of America's shortwave radio broadcasts is now deploying advanced Web proxy and IP address shielding technology to jump online firewalls that block the country-specific websites for VOA, Radio Free Asia and other government-funded news agencies under the purview of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

In most cases, BBG's circumvention tools don't just ensure users can access the agency's news sites. They also create what its chief information security officer and director of Internet freedom programs, Ken Berman, calls an "encrypted pipe" -- essentially a search bar at the top of the websites for VOA China, Persian News Network and other BBG outlets that allows users to go nearly anywhere on the Internet without alerting national Web censors.

"I joke with our [news] content providers, that 'your content's got to be good, because I'm landing folks on your site and we'd like them to stay there,' " Berman said. "Our idea is that an educated citizenry, if they get all the news and views, should be able to make up their own minds. The deeper mission of this program is to encourage freedom of inquiry and freedom of information."

Berman's office does make its best effort to block porn sites without compromising other searches, he said.

The anti-censorship office has occasionally had to limit the websites users can visit through its search bars when it simply didn't have enough server space to support a surge in traffic.

The first and most notable case was during Iran's Green Revolution -- a series of protests that followed the Islamic Republic's disputed 2009 presidential election -- when Berman's office had to limit it's Iranian sites' search bar to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites that were helping fuel the revolution.

The office got a $10 million, one-time funding boost during the negotiations that averted a government shutdown in April. The office intends to use the additional money largely to build up server space to remove similar limitations in the future, Berman said. The money in essence was diverted from Internet freedom funds bound for the State Department.

BBG is essentially a successor to the broadcasting wing of the U.S. Information Agency, the Cold War-era office that beamed Voice of America broadcasts into Eastern Europe and Radio Marti broadcasts into Cuba. BBG became its own independent agency in 1999 when USIA was disbanded and its nonbroadcasting wing, which focused on education and cultural exchanges, was swallowed up by the State Department.

The agency's mission is to promote democratic reforms by ramping up the amount of free information inside relatively closed countries. That includes creating locally produced stories in nations that lack thriving journalistic cultures and beaming in international news broadcast.

Berman's office was first funded as an anti-radio jamming office about 10 years ago with a small Internet component. While that Web component has grown significantly over the past decade much of BBG's work still involves radio and broadcast work in developing nations with very low Internet penetration.

Keeping BBG Web pages up is vital in China where less than 1 percent of citizens still listen to shortwave radio broadcasts but more than 380 million use the Internet, at least occasionally, Berman said.

Other nations such as Iran and Vietnam also have a rapidly growing cadre of young Internet users coupled with a strict regime of press censorship.

In recent months, BBG has been attacked by some lawmakers over its plan to save money by shutting down its Chinese radio broadcasts in favor of Web-based content. The agency has said it's focusing resources where they're most likely to reach people, but critics have charged that it's giving up vital ground just as democratic ideals are taking hold in the Arab world and elsewhere.

Circumvention Tools

Berman's office uses four main circumvention tools to get its websites into the hands of people in high-censorship nations. The first is Tor, which routes information through numerous servers in different countries to conceal who's viewing what.

The second and third tools are software that BBG's services encourage users to download. Freegate, popular in China, and Ultrasurf, popular in Iran, basically shift the user to a different Internet protocol address whenever an outside entity tries to shut down the website he or she is looking at.

The final tool Berman's office uses is Psiphon, which bounces BBG's country-specific Web pages onto a series of disposable proxy Web addresses, with each proxy address capable of supporting the censored site for a day or two before authorities shut it down.

Berman's office advertises each new proxy site on BBG radio and TV broadcasts and in mass emails to people inside the country. When his office sees a dramatic drop in traffic to the proxy site, it shifts to a new proxy and sends out another blast of advertisements and mass emails to promote it.

Psiphon is sophisticated enough that Berman's office is often able to play on countries' bureaucratic inefficiencies, he said, for instance, keeping a proxy site up longer in some distant Chinese provinces that are slower to block it while cycling through proxies much more quickly in Beijing, Shanghai and other large Chinese cities.

The email lists BBG uses to blast new Psiphon proxy sites are supplied by the agency's affiliates and originate with numerous sources, Berman said. In some cases, he said, the Chinese lists are taken straight from Beijing market stalls where entrepreneurs hawk discs full of email addresses, mostly to other Chinese entrepreneurs running viral marketing campaigns.

Berman's office looks through those email lists before using them and winnows out any Yahoo, Gmail or other U.S.-based providers to ensure the agency isn't violating a congressional prohibition against promoting BBG broadcasts inside the United States, he said.

One of the anti-censorship office's biggest challenges is being able rapidly stand up a system to blast out Psiphon proxies in nations that don't typically interfere with Internet content but where the government might suddenly clamp down during a period of crisis or conflict, such as during the Belarussian presidential election in December 2010.

Getting Past Firewalls

China has the largest number of Internet users in the world -- more than the entire U.S. population, according to Chinese government figures that Berman said he's inclined to believe. Yet the number of Chinese Web surfers using BBG-sponsored circumvention tools is about equal to the number of Iranians using those tools, despite the fact that Iran is less than one-tenth China's size.

The reason, Berman said, is that the so-called great firewall of China is so sophisticated most Chinese rarely notice it.

"In China, for better or for worse, you can have a very rich Internet experience in a totally filtered environment," Berman said. "You can download music and video; you can do online dating; you can go to gossip and sports sites, and you can get a lot of news. You just can't get news about the corruption trials or the mine accidents or the flooding or environmental problems."

Studies have found a majority of Chinese approve of some level of government Internet control.

In Iran, Myanmar and other repressive nations with less sophisticated firewalls, Berman said, Web users are more likely to be aware of and irritated by government censorship.

"One of the challenges all media have in China is to let people know, 'hey, there's news you're not getting,' " he said. "In Iran, that consciousness raising is unnecessary because everyone knows they're not getting anything. They can't get to movie sites or gossip sites. The Mullah firewall, if you will, closes down almost everything except a few sanctioned sites."

Some nations with less sophisticated firewalls have turned instead to denial-of-service attacks and other so-called second-generation Web repression tools. A denial-of-service attack is essentially an attempt to flood a website with requests until it overloads and becomes useless.

BBG's Persian-language Radio Farda, for example, has been hit with numerous denial-of-service attacks, aimed both at its website and at jamming phone lines during radio call-in programs.

So far BBG sites have been relatively immune from patching attacks, in which a hacker will break into a website's code and change some of its content, Berman said. There are frequent patching attacks on external sites that BBG programs link to, though, such as a broadcaster's Facebook page or Twitter profile.

In Russia, once the prime target of VOA broadcasts, BBG now is relying almost exclusively on Web-based video and print reporting, partially a result of Russia's success at jamming radio and TV broadcasts and also because of a significant decline in broadcast market share.

Ultimately, Berman said, while the circumvention tools have changed, the basic ideology has not.

"This really is just a continuation of this agency's attempts to overcome shortwave jams," he said. "Coping with jamming has been a way of life for this agency since the Cold War."

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// November 26
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