The Digital Agency for International Development

The Censorship Arms Race

By Chris Wilson on 07 April 2010

Preface: This post discusses censorship. I want to be clear that I represent only my own personal views here, and I don't personally support censorship in most cases. I think that freedom of access to information has a benefit and a cost, and the tradeoff depends on circumstances.

I think that censorship is useful when it serves a higher purpose, for example to save lives, or to save vital money for underfunded universities in countries where bandwidth is expensive and there are alternative ways for students to access the uncensored Internet for private browsing purposes. I'm opposed to censorship that requires leaving the country or changing your ISP to get around it.

Walubengo wrote on the BMO Training mailing list:

Am just from the student labs and came across this sneaky little [software]:

It basically allows my students to get behind the good old dansguardian/squid proxy_firewall; essentially allowing them to visit and download all and sundry (read porn, warez, torrents et al)

[H]ave been wondering why the clamour to "open-up" the internet "for research" had gone down (now I know).

Any quick counters? (beyond just blocking, since they are likely to get an equivalent sooner rather than later)

I have never used ninjacloak and I don't intend to, but I'm sure that if you post some logs of its use from your proxy server, we can figure out how to block it.

However, no security is perfect. There will always be ways around any security measure that we implement. However, no workaround is perfect either. Once we understand how it works, e.g. what the requests that it makes look like, we can block it.

This quickly turns into an arms race between the user and the administrator. The winner is usually the one with the most time, patience and determination. This may be a fight that you don't want to take on.

In my view, if users really really want to access some blocked content, they will find a way. However, a good security system will make it possible to at least trace that they did so, if not exactly what they accessed. So my approach would be two-fold:

  1. Tackle the biggest problems first, and when they make sense. If someone uses ninjacloak to view a porn site once, it is hardly going to bring down your network, so you don't need to care. If all your students are using TOR, AND it is bringing down your network, THEN it's time to do something about it. If you don't know what the biggest problem is, find out.
  2. Don't forget that social measures are far more effective than technical ones. If students know that they are being watched, they are much less likely to try things like this. Make REALLY sure that everyone knows and understands your policy. When you find students bypassing your security, go and talk to them. If necessary, consider the use of formal sanctions, which are likely to have a stronger deterrent effect.

If users think they are being treated unfairly or harshly, it can increase their determination to fight the system. If you have a good reason for censoring, because you can show them how much damage their actions are causing to legitimate or intended uses (such as academic research), they are much more likely to understand and comply with your requests, hopefully avoiding the need for sanctions.

nb: but again, someone may ask, why not just open up the internet any way?

Because (and only when) it wastes your precious bandwidth that's better used for your core purpose (e.g. academic research), which is why you pay for the connection in the first place.

April 8, 2010, 8:44 a.m. - Bitterjug

Nice clear advice, thanks. I think it also helps to think about a fair use policy separately from censorship (of content). Fair use is about not taking up more than your fair share of the precious bandwidth resource. Censorship has -- to me at least -- a connotation of (dis)approval of content. I think it is important that an institution's policy makes clear what are the reasons for its terms: "Downloading linux distribution dvd images is forbidden because it uses more than your fair share of bandwidth", or "Viewing pornography in the University is not permitted".

April 8, 2010, 9:10 a.m. - Tweets that mention The Censorship Arms Race « ...

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Aptivate, Mark Skipper. Mark Skipper said: Clear advice on the "arms race" that sometimes results from trying to censor web access: @aptivateuk #ICT4D #Loband [...]