August 11, 2009

How Barbara Streisand and her cat defend #FreeMediaVe

One Friday, when I was about 12, I attempted to escape from my school by jumping over a fence. My school had recently changed the rules for picking students up, and I couldn’t just walk outside to wait for my parents. This meant that they would have to endure a 45 minute car-queue to pick me up. Which meant that picking up my little sister at her school would take even longer. All of this snowballed into a situation where our monthly trip to the beach had absolutely no margin for error with regards to time. This was unacceptable to my Mom.

That day, as the final bell rang, I followed some older kids on their escape/smoking route. As we arrived behind the gym it became obvious that the final hurdle was a 3 meter fence. I should mention that my sport of preference is swimming, mainly because the only athletics required is a jump into the water. Hence, my climbing was painfully slow. The other kids must have never heard about the leave no man behind” doctrine, because a minute later I was alone. That’s when Brother Ignacio uttered -“Mr. Mateu?”- from below. I was sure my mortal life was going to be over soon. Not only was my Mom going to kill me over being late, but she was going to do it again when she found out I was expelled.

Surprisingly, Brother Ignacio just told me to get down and wrote my name down on a pad. He then turned and walked briskly away. It seemed that the new rule had driven most of the high schoolers to exploit all the known escape routes, and a massive prison-break” was taking place.

Let me assure you that Brother Ignacio didn’t have any issues with me spending the rest of the afternoon on detention. Yet, the total chaos taking place in different parts of the schoolyard made it impossible for him to concentrate on any one case. He was simply trying to monitor the situation as best he could.

Censuring the internet is similar. It’s very hard to do. You have to block keywords, URLs, IP addresses and do hackie things to pollute DNS server connections. In a way, it’s much more difficult to censure half-way than to completely lock it down.

The upcoming chain-link fence of Venezuela

Over the past two weeks I’ve being trying to write a post about tools that get around an Iran-style Web lockdown of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and news sites. The recent #FreemediaVe circus on Twitter and its response by the government only reinforced my belief that some sort of Web censorship is on the horizon. However, the more I researched about the technical aspects of blocking traffic on the Web, the more I began to appreciate the political implications it would have internally and externally.

Lets be clear, the Venezuelan government has the technical capability1 to establish a fairly competent internet censorship model2. Be it a complete-control model like Saudi Arabia, a more flexible version like China, or a simple site filtering system like Norway. The state controls close to 90% of all broadband traffic through the re-nationalized telecommunications company. This is helpful if they are monitoring quietly at the moment, but making other internet providers and mobile operators comply with some sort of centralized system would not be a surprise to anyone.

The tough decision the government needs to take is what type of censorship it would go forward with. However, this is a political decision and its implications are considerable on the lives of urban Venezuelans3.

NoticieroDigital and Aporrea together, on Youtube

The current media control scheme in Venezuela is incompatible with internet censorship because the enemies of the revolution” are not as clear to pinpoint. Unlike TV signals and cable channels, you don’t eliminate NoticieroDigital’s presence online by just blocking their URL. Most of their videos are hosted on Youtube for example. But if you block Youtube, about a thousand Aporrea videos disappear too.

The democratization of media on the internet means that completely opposite political views coexist on the same services. This happens every day, on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Hi5, Blogger, Wordpress, etc. The same tools that pro-chavéz individuals prefer to use online to express their views would likely fall under the censorship wall.

This a consequence of the Cute Cat Theory:

Web 2.0 was created so that people could publish cute photos of their cats. But this same cat dissemination technology has proved extremely helpful for activists, who’ve turned these tools to their own purposes.

Barbara Streisand and Cute Cats to the rescue

All this time I have being imagining the problems activist on both sides would face with some sort of online censorship. Yet, if the political views of Venezuela’s internet users are at all similar to the real-world, then 40% of them are Ni-Ni’s. They are apolitical and don’t really care too much one way or the other. Unless you mess with how they share party pictures, funny videos, use of social networking sites, etc.

Once you start censuring, everybody is affected. Anti-Chavéz, Pro-Chavéz, Anti-Anti, Pro-Anti, Mets fans that read NYtimes, European football followers that read the BBC; there are so many permutations of non-political content that coexists with political content on the same services, that you end up affecting a lot of people. As a result, everyone tries to find a way around it.

The Streisand effect defines this situation as:

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.

Once you find a way to post your cute cats pics, you can do the same to post a picture of a National Guard shooting at crowds. By blocking something online, the government is going to push most internet users towards exploiting the system downfalls. That’s why China’s censorship model puts so much effort into trying to make foreign services comply with their censorship rules and also encourage local services.

The Boiling Blackberry

If the China system is sustainable on the long term, why then can’t Venezuela apply a similar model? I see three main reasons:

  • Internet users and censorship grew up hand-in-hand in China. I’m always amazed about how Chinese individuals are mostly unaware that any censorship exists at all. It’s a typical case of the boiling frog, you only notice if it’s very sudden. They sometimes mention that some inappropriate Web sites are not allowed, but to them it doesn’t seem to be censorship, just protection.
  • Although there was some important growth in local web services early on the decade, Venezuela currently lacks any real local alternatives to the basic Web2.0 services: photo sharing, blogs, social networking.
  • Blackberry: The growth of Blackberry devices in Venezuela has been phenomenal4. It’s used by the cool kids, the opposition political parties, the local government and all journalist. By design, nobody (not even RIM in Canada) can see what goes on within the Blackberry Mail and Messenger walled garden. Any real attempt to censure communications in Venezuela needs to start by shutting down all local Blackberry Services providers.

Everything is going to be alright. Not really

Is everything is fine then? We have nothing to worry about, right? Yes we do. Remember what I said above: the government can, and probably will, establish some sort of online censorship. It will not work as expected for the reasons already mentioned. Nevertheless, they will be able to monitor a lot of traffic. And if things someday really heat up, they can disrupt most important Web sites for a considerable period of time. Next week I’ll point to some services to keep handy if Iran-style blockade happens and you want to post to Twitter, your blog, etc. But remember, just follow the cats.

Just to finish my escape-from-school story, I eventually got outside and told my parents what had happened. Without knowing what to say my mom just stammered -“Well, uh, next time …”-, and my always proper Dad just added -“don’t get caught”-. I believe that recommendation is still valid.

  1. According to Venezuelan Internet Profile:

    … the government already monitors internet traffic through CANTV using a program similar to MRTG (Multi-Router Traffic Grapher). Government policy also requires all other internet service providers to monitor their traffic through a similar program.


  2. The ability to monitor internet traffic does not necessarily lead to internet censorship. Although I don’t think that Hugo Chávez’s revolution has any issues prioritizing national security” over individuals freedoms. ↩︎

  3. According to Conatel, there were 7.552.570 million internet users in the first quarter of 2009 ↩︎

  4. According to some, Blackberry have sold more than 500.000 devices. The biggest market in America after the US ↩︎

Essay Venezuela Web Security

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