How to beat a web censor, but how censors could still shut down a site

After the arbitrary block of five websites, largely critical of Government, in early November 2011 and confusion over the requirement to register news sites, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) flagged this blog post as one that can help those at risk. As the CPJ article notes,

“Sanjana Hattotuwa is one of the driving forces behind Groundviews and Vikalpa. In addition to overseeing the sites’ editorial content, over the years he’s made himself into something of a digital platform expert. In June he wrote “How to beat a web censor, but how censors could still shut down a site” which gives very practical, hard-won advice to anyone like him, trying to run a website in a hostile political environment. The piece gets technical, so I checked with Danny O’Brien, CPJ’s Internet advocacy coordinator. He gave Hattotuwa’s advice his stamp of approval–“Very accurate,” O’Brien called it.”

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WordPress.com goes down – A chink in the “cloud” and how to plan for it was a blog post from three years ago on how one could plan for what is guaranteed to happen with any web service – downtime (like when Gmail crashed in February 2009, affecting millions of users). Another dimension to preparedness comes when operating within repressive regimes that will always seek to curtail and contain dissent.

Groundviews was blocked for a short while yesterday. I was in New York. The time difference and access to high speed broadband helped. The sites blocked (Groundviews, Vikalpa and Transparency International Sri Lanka) were all accessible for me in New York and others in Sri Lanka who weren’t using SLT ADSL connections to connect to the Internet. This ruled out any server side attack.

Mirroring Groundviews

It’s been over two years since I registered http://gvsrilanka.wordpress.com, which I immediately activated to mirror content off Groundviews.

Challenges

The WordPress XML Import feature, for whatever reason, didn’t work on this blog, so I couldn’t import into the wordpress.com site content I could export out of groundviews.org (which is hosted on WordPress)

I had just parked the blog. No configuration was done, and setting it up took precious time. I had to first buy a premium theme (Delicious Magazine by WooThemes) and then set it up. After that, I had to figure out how to import the content from groundviews.org. Clearly, importing everything was out, so I decided to go with the most recent 25 – 30 posts.

Here again was a challenge. The site was intended to act as a full independent mirror, so any URL that references a resource on the .org site wouldn’t load. I had to check the HTML code for photo / picture embeds, and then basically upload them again to the .com site. This was time consuming. Further, high visibility Bundlr and Storify content simply wouldn’t survive the transition (though it’s creator in a comment on this blog suggests that this may soon change). One could of course link to the content on the web.

Why WordPress.com?

Hold the user base hostage. In any repressive regime, a key strategy to employ when publishing inconvenient truths is to do so on one’s own site (e.g. gruesome war crimes video can be subject to take down requests on YouTube for violation of guidelines) but also have the option, on demand, to transfer this content to an establish web based blogging platform like WordPress or Blogger.

What you are doing is to publish content on a larger, more used, collectively more known and read platform. Your content is lost in a sea of cute cat and toddler videos, but this is precisely the strength of the strategy, because to shut down access, you basically have to shut down access to the entire web service / platform. In other words, this site – ict4peace.wordpress.com – can’t be as easily blocked as groundviews.org, since to do so will require blocking the entire wordpress.com domain, affecting hundreds of thousands of users in Sri Lanka. And with their voice taken away, they aren’t going to be silent. Hell hath no fury like a blogger who can’t post a feline update.

While blocking groundviews.org may hardly make international news, blocking wordpress.com certainly will and there is no way a government can claim that this is a random technical glitch, or server side error.

This same principle applies to Flickr, Vimeo, YouTube, Soundcloud, Bundlr, Storify, Twitter and Facebook. A media site serious about holding a government accountable or doing hard investigative stories needs to have a presence on all these platforms, and never for example self-host content (say for example as Flash videos) natively on its site. It’s like putting all of one’s eggs in a single basket – the site goes down, all of one’s content is immediately inaccessible. Spreading the content across robust web platform not only spreads the risk, it makes it exponentially harder to shut down a media voice without going down the route of Myanmar in ’07 or Egypt earlier this year. An added benefit is that most of these sites offer some of the best networking, embedding and sharing options on the web, allowing one’s content to be virally distributed over multiple media.

Using Facebook

In a similar vein, I was getting ready to migrate as much content as possible to Facebook notes on the Facebook fan page for Groundviews, which now has around 8,700+ fans (the Daily Mirror fan page, in comparison, has around 4,500+ – and this is with large ads running daily in its newspaper). Facebook itself calculates that there are around 130 friends per account on average, which means that the potential reach of content published on the Groundviews fan page (our reader base is 18 – 34, largely from Sri Lanka) stood at around 1,131,000, which is not bad at all. This was a vital readership base to leverage in the event groundviews.org was blocked, which is why it was useful to republish again the most recent 25 – 30 posts as Notes.

Challenges

Everything had to be done manually. Posts on Groundviews, with a delay of around a day, are set up to appear automatically on Facebook, but only as an excerpt of the full post, which required one to click through to groundviews.org to read the full content. Clearly this would fail in the event the main site was blocked, so the notes had to be self contained.

As with WordPress.com, content curated on Storify and Bundlr wouldn’t have survived the migration – Facebook simply does not support embeds of this nature. But as noted before, one could of course link to the respective stories on the web.

Video embeds wouldn’t work. Again, a link to the video on YouTube or Vimeo would have worked.

RSS via Feedburner, and not from site itself

It’s only when Groundviews was blocked that I realised the RSS feeds on the site itself were not those generated from Google’s Feedburner, with which I had set up an account to parse the site’s news feeds when it relaunched in December 2010. This was quickly addressed. RSS is a phenomenally powerful and often grossly undervalued channel to get content through even the most pervasive site blocks across multiple ISPs.

Case in point – Tamilnet.com. It’s blocked across all ISPs in Sri Lanka save for one, Etisalat. Most journalists use unsafe online proxies to access the site. A handful I know use the TOR Browser Bundle (more on that later). Most feel that without either, content on tamilnet.com can’t be read. Not true. Enter the URL into Google Reader, and even on any ISP that blocks the website, the news feeds are displayed without requiring any proxy, or even TOR.

Why this works is because Google Reader is web based, and gets the feed from tamilnet.com from its own servers, without passing through the ISP’s filtering. (Sadly, tamilnet.com doesn’t publish it’s full content via RSS, so while you can see the excerpt, clicking through to the full page on any local ISP without TOR installed is an exercise in futility.)

Challenge

Most media organisations hate full feed RSS, thinking that it takes away from the readers who would otherwise come to the site to read content. I’m not going to go into how outdated and outmoded this thinking is even for mainstream media, but for sites such as Groundviews, full feed RSS for content and comments is essential, since it allows for content to be read and transmitted even if the site is blocked across all ISPs.

Google’s Feedburner is a great service that makes this very easy, though it is a bit complicated to set up and requires some experimentation to get just right. In short, it’s not a service that’s geared for novices, but if you can get it to work, it really pays off, also in terms of a backend that does traffic analysis.

Another challenge is that readers aren’t really aware of RSS. We recommended RSSOwl for Windows, Reeder for Apple OS X and Google’s online Google Reader as our favourite RSS readers, but simply couldn’t afford to give lessons on how to get our RSS feed added to a news reader if the person was a complete novice to this. What this means in the real world is that a site block will have a real impact on readership, even though the content remains easily accessible through other channels.

TOR Browser bundle

We recommended the excellent TOR Browser Bundle for users to continue to access Groundviews even with ISP blocks in place. Sadly, far too few in Sri Lanka know about TOR, even amongst mainstream media. The perils of using online proxies are also largely unknown.

Challenge

TOR’s technical. The TOR Browser Bundle is about as easy as it gets, but it is still far too technical for most average users. So again, a site block would impact on readership even though tools and technologies exist, for free, that facilitate easy access. The TOR Browser Bundle is tied to a specific version of Firefox. In my own use, upgrading Firefox (just today, Firefox 5 came out) often breaks TOR, which may confuse the average user. If this makes it sound as if it is a nightmare to use, it’s emphatically not, but from experience, the average reader of Groundviews is probably note someone capable of installing this by themselves.

Twitter

On Twitter, we follow no one. However, our updates are followed by almost every single wire news service out of the US, Europe, South Asia (based out of Delhi), INGOs, journalists both local and international, bloggers, media freedom organisations, Sri Lankan politicians and other influential groups and individuals.

We tweeted that the site was blocked, and found immediate retweets of this information across many other accounts. It is impossible to accurately ascertain the final reach of this content. For example, the South Asian Journalists Association twitter account (@sajahq) is followed by 1,661. Well known Sri Lankan author Vasugi Ganeshananthan’s Twitter account (@vasugi) is followed by 1,676. Only 211 contacts are shared between them. A single retweet of anything we published on both or any one of these accounts guaranteed global attention, follow up and viral dissemination.

Unlike Facebook or the WordPress.com mirror I activated, Twitter is not a platform that can be used to support an entire site’s content, but it can be a tremendously powerful way to send updates, pointers, requests for assistance, emergency alerts and warnings, which again can be published via SMS if necessary and unless the entire twitter.com is blocked, difficult to censor.

Site backups via Vaultpress

I’ve written at length about Vaultpress before, so I’m not going to go into too much of detail here. Suffice to say that having it is a great source of comfort, knowing that even if the site is blocked or disabled, a complete backup of every single last letter on the site, and all associated files and content, is just a mouse click away. Full worth the $15 I pay for it every month.

Greatest challenge: Technology vs person

The temporary block on Groundviews wasn’t entirely unexpected. The reason I registered http://gvsrilanka.wordpress.com years ago was because I always feared that someone in the Sri Lankan government or some over zealous ISP seeking to win favours would block Groundviews.

The techniques and tools above pretty much guarantee the site’s operation even if all ISPs were to block it tomorrow. That would of course be a pain in the arse, but it wouldn’t stop our operations, or for that matter, readers from reading whatever we published or produced. Technically, it’s now impossible to block a single site and expect its content to disappear. Realistically speaking though, there is a very real cost when and if this happens. The strategies assume some degree of technical know how. TOR is harder than setting up a RSS Reader. Twitter is used by very few, and even though our Facebook fans are growing at the rate of around 25 – 30 at least a week, they are from the 18 – 34 demographic. Those outside, particularly those who are older, are oblivious to web based social networking. Even though you easily can, few actually have subscribed to our automatic updates via email available on the homepage of groundviews.org.

In sum, our readership comes largely from those who visit the site on a daily basis, and engage with the content that’s published. While this would be possible even if the site were blocked, many will not know how even if told, and we will see a significant drop initially, though it would over time pick up again.

Ultimately of course, the easiest way to censor is not electronically. It’s been over 500 days since Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared in Sri Lanka. It is highly unlikely he is alive. Why bother with site blocks and all manner of filtering systems when it is far easier to just abduct and kill, creating as a consequence a fear psychosis that results in heightened self-censorship? This was a strategy quite overtly employed during war, and my fear is that even post-war, if inconvenient truths are perceived to be too frequent, loud and too influential, those who voice them risk the same fate as Prageeth or Lasantha.

A site is only as useful, and vibrant, as the voices that fuel it. Kill the authors, and you pretty much kill a site. No ISP’s help needed.

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