Internet repression on the rise since Arab Spring

Most regimes censoring the Internet are using new tactics that go beyond simple blocking, experts say.

There's been a ramp up in Internet blocking and what appears to be government-sponsored denial-of-service attacks across several repressive, non-Arab regimes since the Arab Spring uprisings, a State Department official told lawmakers Friday.

It's not clear, though, whether those countries are cracking down in response to uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa or if they're simply responding to local issues, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Daniel Baer told congressional members of the Helsinki Commission, an independent government agency that helps guide the United States' role in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Baer repeatedly demurred when Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., pressed him to say which nations are the worst violators of online free expression, either in the OSCE region or globally.

He did point to Smith's opening statement, which criticized the imprisonment of bloggers in Russia; the blocking of Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites in Belarus, and a Turkish government request to Internet service providers to filter out websites that contain a list of words it considers offensive.

Most regimes that limit citizens' Internet access today do so through either second- or third-generation censorship tools, said RafalRohozinski, a senior scholar at the Canada Center for Global Security Studies.

The first generation of Internet censorship consisted of powerful blocking tools that simply filtered out an ever growing list of Web pages, Rohozinski said. The classic example, he said, is the so-called Great Firewall of China, which blocks access to thousands of pages about Tibetan nationalism, the Falun Gong religious movement and other dissident groups.

"The second generation is more active measures," he said. For example, a government will orchestrate distributed denial-of-service attacks that involve flooding a website with more operations than it can handle so other people can't access it.

Second-generation censorship is often aimed at temporarily shutting down a site, such as during the most recent Russian presidential election, he said, rather than permanently disabling it.

It also can involve hacking into a site and "patching it" by changing some words or images to alter the site's message, rather than shutting it down entirely-- a common tactic in Kazakhstan -- he said.

"Third generation is a step further," Rohozinski said. "It includes the use of malware, virus-based attacks on human rights groups, opposition groups."

Such attacks often combine malicious software with paid human plants on social networking sites or messaging sites whosow discord within an opposition group, he said.

In other cases, regimes have simply criminalized some online activities with fines and imprisonment, he said.

First-generation censorship often can be overcome with circumvention technologies that get around government Web probes, Rohozinski said.

"Second- and third-generation attacks are very different," he said. "The solution isn't purely in the technical realm."