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Medium blocked: Collateral Censorship vs. Collateral Freedom

Website Blocked

So the buzz around twitter is that Medium.com has been blocked by the Malaysian Authorities, and guess what? It’s true.

It was expected, after all Medium is where the ‘infamous’ Clare Rewcastle Brown uploads her articles to circumvent censorship of her own site, the equally diabolical SarawakReport.org.

Medium is like twitter without the character limits, and it’s quite a cool site to just browse around and look for interesting articles to read, The platform claims to be “community of readers and writers offering unique perspectives on ideas large and small”.

A lot of successful writers and bloggers have taken to Medium to host their content, including Stephen Levy, the author of In the Plex, one of my favorite books on Google. He’s using it (and only it) to start a Tech Hub  for his content, and placing it alongside millions of other articles contributed by both professional and amateur writers.

So it made sense for SarawakReport to take their content to Medium. After all, most of their readership is Malaysian, and since Malaysian ISPs ‘censored’ their content, using a neutral ‘un-censored’ platform like Medium was a perfect solution—well almost perfect!

It’s a phenomenon called ‘collateral freedom’, and for a while SarawakReport readers, and Malaysian internet users enjoyed that collateral freedom, Medium was free and un-censored, which made Sarawark also free and un-censored as long as it was on the platform.

You see, the government can censor entire websites easily, but it gets a lot harder when it comes to specific content on those websites. To understand how this works, imagine a postal system of regular mail using letters and envelopes. If the government wanted to block all my mail, it’ll simply issue instructions to the post-man to never deliver letters to my home. Simple, I get no mail, and can send no mail out.

On the other hand, if it only wanted to block ‘political’ letters to me, it would now have to open and read all my incoming mail to determine if the contents were political in nature. Still quite simple but a lot more effort. This opening, reading and filtering of incoming mail is akin to what we ‘techy’ folks called deep-packet-inspection(DPI), where all your internet traffic is inspected and the ‘appropriate’ action will be taken.

DPI requires far more sophisticated hardware and software, which capable of reading internet traffic and making decisions on the nature of that traffic in real-time.Blocking all my letters is far easier than just blocking some, but even as powerful and intrusive as DPI sounds, it’s no match for the simplest of encryption.

Encryption is the simple process of scrambling data, so that only the receiver and sender can un-scramble them, initially most of the encryption on the internet focused on commercial transactions, specifically to encrypt credit card numbers, but as time went on it became more prevalent to prevent spying on personal data and e-mails zipping through the information super highway (boy, it’s been a while since I used that term)

Encryption really is the worlds greatest equalizer. You in your home, with a reasonably old laptop, can encrypt your communications to Google, Facebook and even my super awesome website with encryption so powerful that even the US Government can’t break it (or so we would like to believe). At the very least, we can be reasonably assured that the Malaysian Government doesn’t have the capability required to decipher the encrypted communications between you and my site right now–trust me, they can’t!

And because encryption is happening by default these days, powerful governments who were once able to open letters in envelopes with impunity, are now complaining about the going dark phenomenon. Going back to the letters and envelope analogy, the Government can now open my mail, but it has no idea what the content is because it all looks like a bunch of garbled cyrillic russian. This is where collateral freedom really shines….

When you visit Wikipedia, your browser first creates an encrypted connection to Wikipedia servers, and only after that secure encrypted tunnel is created, do it request the specific page from Wikipedia. Since the encryption happens before the page request, no one in the middle can tell if which page of Wikipedia you’re on. The same is true of Medium, Facebook, Google and even keithRozario.com.

Because no one (not even the Government) is unable to determine which part of Facebook, Wikipedia or Medium you’re visiting, and because sites like Wikipedia and Medium host so much content, it’s very hard to infer if you’re visiting SarawakReport on Medium, or my post on Medium. The Government is then faced with an ‘all or nothing’ option, it can either block ALL of Medium or block NONE of Medium….there is no middle ground. In essence the ‘other’ content on Medium was protecting SarawakReport on Medium, hence the term collateral freedom.

And for a long time,the Malaysian Government was content with allowing Medium through, knowing that the good of having citizens gain access to its content, far outweighs the ‘bad’ of SarawakReport.

But…at some point collateral freedom became collateral censorship, where the ‘bad’ content of SarawakReport affected all other content on Medium, including the non-political inclined Stephen Levy. This is bad, because a lot of original content is coming from Medium and Malaysians will now be blocked from it.

This is of course not entirely unique to Malaysia. Pakistan blocked all of Youtube because of one video, and China momentarily blocked all of Wikipedia because of the Tienanmen Square anniversary article, but are these really the examples we would like our local government to follow? In the case of China, they took things to the next level with their attack on GitHub. You can Google “Great Cannon” if you’re interested.

I’ve always maintained that Surveillance and Censorship are two sides of the same coin, and as the government begins to Censor more and more of the internet, they’re beginning to surveil a larger chunk of it as well. Think about it, if you try to access Medium or SarawakReport today, you get redirected to an ISP hosted page that informs you that the website you wanted to visit ‘violates Malaysian law’. What’s to stop your ISP from hosting logging software on that website, and report to the government on a monthly basis who tried to visit SarawakReport, and because their your ISP, they can provide the names, IC Numbers and contact details of visitors as well.

The government seriously needs to evaluate it’s stance on the internet, and really reflect on whether protecting itself from negative publications is worth the horrific damage it’s exacting on the internet in Malaysia.

By the way, follow these steps to bypass the government censorship attempts. They still work :). My personal recommendation is to get a VPN called privateinternetaccess , it will allow you to circumvent nearly all censorship attempts by your ISP, and your purchase of it helps support the blog. Visit this page for my review of privateinternetaccess.

#Update 1: We’ve confirmed Medium was indeed blocked by MCMC ‘command’.

#Update2: Medium’s response to MCMC

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