Asia's Internet Censorship Will Be Easy to Circumvent

Rohit Khare (
Wed, 11 Sep 96 19:12:31 -0400

Asia's Internet Censorship Will Be Easy to Circumvent


For the underground dissident or hard-core pornography enthusiast, the latest
moves in Asia to censor the Internet pose little challenge. The greatest
impact will be on normal, law-abiding citizens, experts say.

Both China and Singapore are taking steps to prevent Internet users from
accessing sites the two governments deem morally or politically offensive.
Next week, Singapore's three Internet service providers will begin blocking
users from directly accessing the World Wide Web, instead routing their
on-line traffic through computers that can deny access to sites on a
government blacklist.

Networks in China, which has created a bottleneck by funneling all Internet
traffic through the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, have also begun
blocking sites. As reported last week, the banned list includes sites prepared
by major Western news media such as The Wall Street Journal Interactive

Circumventing these gatekeepers, Internet experts say, is relatively simple.
All it takes is a little knowledge of how the Internet works or, even simpler,
money. As a result, Internet restrictions are more constraining to some than
to others. Even more insidious to some Internet experts and political
observers is that where Internet censorship falls short technically, it makes
up with intimidation.

"When the bureaucrats come out with the warnings that they're doing this, to
a large extent it's to instill a fear factor," says Bob Broadfoot, managing
director at Political & Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong.

China's proscriptions appear to be part of its campaign to halt a perceived
erosion of social values and of central control over the country. Chinese
officials last week labeled the sites blocked so far as being "suspected of
carrying spiritual pollution."

The order last month that the nation's two commercial Internet service
providers, or ISPs, begin blocking certain sites is in line with longstanding
rules against pornography and subversive literature, as well as China's
censorship of the news media. China has ordered all Internet users to register
with the police. Among the sites it has now blocked are the Cable News
Network and the Dalai Lama/Tibetan exile page.

While the Singapore government won't say what sites are on its blacklist, or
even how many there are, it says it is targeting "content which may undermine
(the) public morals, political stability and religious harmony of Singapore."
Home to three races -- Chinese, Malay and Indian -- Singapore is a city where
memories of race riots in the 1960s still help shape public policy. And while
prostitution is legal, Singapore's red-light districts are tucked discreetly
away from its commercial areas. Antipornography rules are so strict that
anyone importing a videocassette must pay to have it screened by government

The Internet poses new challenges to such controls, because sites can be
created anywhere in the world and can be accessed by a person anywhere else
with a telephone and a computer.

Unless, that is, the data has to pass through customs first. Normally, an
Internet user accesses a site by keying in an address, which like a phone
number, calls the site's host computer. This host then sends the site's
contents back to the computer that requested them through a machine called a
router at the company selling the user access to the Internet.

To filter the Web, which is only part of the vast Internet, this router can
be told not to accept any requests to access Web pages on the Internet, says
Robert Coggeshall, an Internet consultant in Hong Kong. Because Web
conversations are usually initiated over a single port, or channel, on the
Internet, blocking access to the Web is a simple matter of telling the router
to block the Web's usual port.

The next step, says Mr. Coggeshall, is to force users to route Web requests
thought a proxy server, a type of powerful computer. Internet service
providers the world over use proxy servers to store up copies of popular sites
and thereby keep repeated user requests from clogging their precious lines to
the rest of the Internet. But these servers can also be programmed to
discriminate against certain sites' addresses, refusing to fetch the contents
of those sites.

This is the system that will come into play in Singapore as of Sept. 15, the
end of a two-month grace period for ISPs to adhere to new licensing
requirements imposed by the Singapore Broadcasting Authority, according to
Nicholas Lee, chief executive officer of Singapore ISP Pacific Internet Pte.
Ltd. Since July, the ISPs have been using their routers to block users from
certain computers overseas that host sites such as Playboy and Penthouse. Now
they will require users to program their Web browsers to go through proxy
servers, which will check user requests against the government-supplied list
of banned addresses.

The gaping hole in this defense, experts say, is that the proxy servers
identify offending Web sites not by their content, but by their addresses.
Change the address and the content can get through. This simple subterfuge is
how almost anyone with a basic knowledge of the Internet -- and the
determination to use it -- will be able to get around the proxy server,
experts say.

The first way is to fool the router into accepting a request to access a Web
page. Web page owners can arrange to accept requests on a port different from
the one usually reserved for Web sites. This would enable Internet users to
access Web pages without going through the proxy server at all. There are at
least 10,000 possible ports on the Internet, Mr. Coggeshall says, all of which
are used at random to conduct Internet conversations. An ISP can block any
number of ports, but attempting to block too many eventually cripples
legitimate communications.

The second way is to fool the proxy server by simply changing the address
that users type in to get the Web site. If the address isn't on its list of
banned sites, the proxy server will fetch the information.

Changing an address, of course, is only effective if users know the new one.
Web-page producers can advertise their new listing on indexes such as Yahoo!
and AltaVista, but censors can surf these indexes as easily as Internet users.
Sending new addresses to subscribers by electronic mail is also vulnerable,
say Internet experts -- censors can pose as users to get the new address and
e-mail can be tapped. Users can also go through the Internet to proxy servers
in other countries and ask them to fetch illicit Web pages. But access to
these proxy servers, too, can be blocked.

The net result of all this is a cat-and-mouse game between censors and those
trying to evade them. Internet publishers can ultimately resort to encryption
to keep their contents secret, but they then lose the ability to reach large
numbers of people. Authorities can keep blocking more and more sites, but
ultimately they risk stifling legitimate data communications and squandering

"At some point the censors will run out of resources and they'll only police
the main streets," says Mr. Coggeshall. "There's no way you can police every
alley, every gutter, every side street."

Those determined to use the Internet to access subversive information or
pornography won't be stopped, a shortcoming Singapore authorities readily
admit. Instead, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority says it is trying to
protect those using the Internet for research, communication or education --
especially children -- from stumbling onto one of the Internet's unsavory

"What we're trying to do is limit easy access to certain sites," says Ahmad
Shuhaimi, management executive at the broadcasting authority.

An innocent surfing session can turn up some shocking options. Using popular
search engine AltaVista to search the Net by some key words for this article
-- "Asian," "law" and "pornography," for example -- turns up among the many
law-related and free-speech sites a number of X-rated entries including
something called "The A6 Asian Erotica & Sex Page!"

Singapore aims someday to hook each and every citizen to the Internet, so its
wish to monitor the Web is understandable. Yet only 4% of its three million
citizens are on-line so far.

In China, the Internet is still largely the domain of intellectuals and big
corporations, according to Mr. Broadfoot, the risk consultant. China's
intellectuals have been using the Internet as a medium for discussing Chinese
culture with other Chinese around the world. According to Pierre Robert, a
researcher for Amnesty International based in London, China's human-rights
activists have yet to embrace the Internet as a means of communication. As for
the broader population, a recent survey found that fewer than 2% of Chinese
families even owned a computer.

Given that the restrictions protect so few people from the Web's damaging
influences, some say the exercise has more to do with public relations than
policy. Mr. Broadfoot says China's efforts to censor the Internet are rooted
in a traditional fear of outside information among the Communist Party's old
guard, most of whom have likely never used the Internet. And protecting the
public from evil outside influences, whether or not very many people have the
opportunity to be exposed to them, still counts as a public service.

Internet restrictions, experts say, can also serve as negative reinforcement:
deterring many people from even trying to access sites they think might be
off-limits for fear that the government is watching.

"It's kind of a Big Brother intimidation tactic," says one ISP manager based
in Tokyo. "The fact that where you go on the Internet can be recorded, can be
saved, can be tracked. That factor makes people more hesitant."

Such signals come at a price. Taxpayers' money will be needed to pay censors
to surf the Web to keep track of the ever-evolving list of forbidden sites.
And installing and maintaining proxy servers isn't cheap. Mr. Lee of Singapore
ISP Pacific Internet estimates that forcing customers to use the proxy server
has already cost the company somewhere between 10,000 Singapore dollars and
150,000 Singapore dollars (US$7,100 to US$106,600), depending on how much
money is saved as traffic diverted to the proxy servers reduces use of Pacific
Internet's international leased lines.

Where they exist, Internet restrictions are borne unevenly. Anyone with
access to a corporate account in Singapore won't have to go through a proxy
server. And for consumers who can afford international phone calls, an
overseas Internet account can provide warts-and-all access to the Web. U.S.
companies _International Business Machines_ Corp. and _CompuServe_ Inc. both
offer access to the Internet in several Asian countries outside China and

Asia's well-heeled Web surfers will soon have to reach farther afield to
escape the censors, however. Information ministers from the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations -- which includes Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia,
Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam -- attending the first Internet
forum in Singapore agreed last week to filter out material that might erode
Asian values.