Posted by: structureofnews | May 2, 2011

The Free Speech Arms Race

I remember, many years ago, at one of our then every-other-year gathering of the Asian-based Wall Street Journal correspondents, a discussion about technology and freedom.

One of my colleagues – a very tech-focused Tokyo reporter – talked about how, in an era of cheaper technology and easier communications, the repressive regimes of the region would soon be unable to censor speech effectively.   So I – coming from Singapore, a wealthy nation with lots of tech-savvy bureaucrats – counter-argued that technology works both ways; countries that could afford it would harness technology to better spy on their citizens and crack down on them.

That was sometime in the late 1990s.  And a decade-and-some later, it’s clear we’re both right.  Technologies like PGP, microblogs, smuggled DVDs, offshore websites, disposable cellphones and so on, have made it much easier for dissidents and ordinary citizens to talk to each other and to circumvent government restrictions on free speech.   At the same time, it’s also clear that governments that have mastered technology are able to use those tools to better infiltrate, identify and otherwise interfere with them.

It’s an arms race, and one that continues to unfold.

It’s world press freedom day, of course, so this is a good time to think about how technology enables both sides of that right.  The Committee to Protect Journalists has a nice posting on “The 10 Tools of Online Oppressors,” detailing how governments around the world have cracked down on online dissent and organizing.

Some of the methods it notes aren’t particularly technological – beating up, jailing or killing bloggers is no different from beating up, jailing or killing journalists.  But others are more devious, including phishing for journalists’ passwords:

But in 2010, the Tunisian Internet Agency took the effort one step further, redirecting Tunisian users to fake, government-created log-in pages for Google, Yahoo, and Facebook. From these pages, authorities stole usernames and passwords. When Tunisian online journalists began filing reports on the uprising, the state used their login data to delete the material.

Not to mention the use of malware to infect journalists’ computers to spy on them and steal their documents.   There’s a great example of one such attempt detailed here, involving a fake invitation sent to CPJ to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Liu Xiaobo.

The invite PDF doesn’t contain the invitation text. Instead, it has a simple test message, “Hello World!”, and a complex set of extra data that exploits the bug and runs an additional piece of code which has no connection to displaying a PDF. This code saves a new file on the users’ hard drive and runs it. It also displays a convincing fake invite, on the organizations letterhead and signed by its founder, to cover its tracks. Finally, the new file is run, connects to a server in Bengbu, China and awaits further instructions.

Scary stuff.   And a reminder – not that we needed it – that technology doesn’t always make the world a better place. Indeed, as we depend too much on one technology – the internet, for example, we can become increasingly vulnerable to government control of it.  Witness the shutdown of the net in Egypt.

Still, it’s worth noting that, despite all these advances in censorship, people around the world are still willing to brave great difficulties and dangers to exercise their right to speak.  And many succeed.


  1. I attended a workshop for citizen journalists years ago, which covers all sorts of security issues online. The basic of the basics is to use https for your Gmail – set it up, ask your technical support if you don’t know how.

    On the other side, Google has been looking for someone to take up its China-related Policy but one year passed since they posted the job ad, it is not filled yet. It tells sth.

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