Mapping is a way of referring to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) which, put simply, take geo-referenced data and place it on a map for the purpose of a clear visualisation of the metadata and for the purpose of geo-locating actionable information. So for example if I want to know where to target my funding for an anti-drugs campaign I could map the data for instances of drug and alcohol related crime in order to see which areas of any given location, say L.A., might be most vulnerable and stand to gain the most from this funding. Any information which can be geographically referenced can be mapped and many different types of information are being mapped; You can check out Floatingsheep for a look at a wide range of maps or Ogle Earth for a critical analysis of mapping applications in science and society.

When mapping data intended to benefit people living in fragile or failed states it is important to consider which map on which to place our datasets. Lets take OpenStreetMap (OSM) vs GoogleMaps: The differences between the two are extensive, but I want to highlight one point and that is that Google Maps are corporate; Google is a for-profit company, and for the purpose of this discussion that equals being subject to export restrictions and country-specific discrimination. OSM on the other hand is an open source map, which means that anyone who knows how to use it and has access to an internet connection can add information to these maps. So in places where the Google folks can’t go – like the DRC or the Gaza Strip – detailed information, such as landmarks, hospitals, schools and other points of interest (including minor roads and alleyways), just isn’t available for these locations. See OSM Gaza Strip vs Google Maps Gaza Strip.

That said, neither OSM nor Google Maps have detailed information for the DRC, but we can assume that in the case of the OSM this is because in the Congo very very few people have access to the internet, less than 0.5% vs 81% in the Gaza Strip (CIA World Factbook, 2011). Another important point to mention is that for all countries where US trade sanctions apply Google Earth is a good as gone.  During the Darfur crisis in 2007, aid workers in Sudan were unable to access Google Earth due to export restrictions on Google licenses in Sudan placed on Google by the US government, as a US company.

The importance of GIS, or mapping, in situations of crisis and conflict has recently become more widely acknowledged; The mapping platform Ushahidi, an African-born technology, was used most notably in Kenya during the post-election crisis in late 2007, in Haiti following the devastating earthquake of 2010 and this year in Libya during the crisis that erupted following the February 17th protests. Ushahidi takes information via email, online, through text and voice-mail messaging and twitter geo-references it, tabulates it and turns it into visualizable and manageable data on one of the widely used maps of your choice (Google, Yahoo, Bing or OSM Maps). The technology supports other platforms such as FrontlineSMS and SwiftRiver in order to enable more accurate and timely reporting.

Ushahidi works through crowdsourcing: crowdsourcing in terms of the crisis related information going into the map and crowdsourcing in terms of the online volunteers from all over the world who manage and filter that information, otherwise known as the Standby Task Force (SBTF). The SBTF work as a kind of volunteer global emergency service and they are trained before hand (and sometimes on the job) how to use Ushahidi platform and how to filter and verify reports. Anyone in the world with an internet connection (presumably broadband), a mobile phone and some time to offer can join the SBTFMapAction, who have also been commended for their mapping efforts in recent major conflict and disaster related crises, work on the same premise as the SBTF and have produced a range of maps covering various datasets surrounding the Libya crisis.

After the success of the deployment of Ushahidi during the Haiti earthquake crisis when it provided invaluable crisis related information for the humanitarian relief effort managed by the UN, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) decided to directly collaborate on the formation of a crisis-information map for the Libya Crisis.  The Standby Task Force (SBTF), lead by Patrick Meier worked with the OCHA coordinators in Libya to compile a map of essential information for the humanitarian efforts there.

In OCHA’s follow-up report on the collaboration with the SBTF, they highlighted the need for products like the Libya Crisis Map to go beyond online “event” reporting, which I’m going to take to mean the mere reporting of event related news readily available online. One of the major problems with mapping in conflict vs mapping in natural disaster is the inherent need for sensitivity and confidentiality surrounding some types of information being managed; Ordinary civilians living in conflict situations risk torture and death when participating in a project like this. Patrick Meier discusses this in his post-mapping analysis of the collaboration with OCHA;  The SBTF did manage to get local collaborators on board to feed information directly from Libya about the goings-on, but hesitantly;  They were happy to collaborate as long as the map remained within the private domain to be viewed and used only by those directly involved in the humanitarian efforts. When the Libya Crisis Map went public three days after the private map was deployed this collaboration stopped.  The implications of the publication of the map for the global audience on these Libya-based contributors is unknown.

Also a second major problem was present, that of a total censorship of the most important telecommunication networks available at the time, i.e. the internet and mobile phone services. In Haiti, the Ushahidi team organised with the US State Department for a text number (4636) to be made available for Haitians to report localised crisis information from their mobile phones – this greatly enhanced the success of the humanitarian efforts.  In Libya, no text number was made available and would have been fruitless as all mobile services which were state-owned and operated were shut-down along with the internet by the Gaddafi regime.

This leads to the question: who did the Libya Crisis Map serve? Indirectly, it served the Libyan civilians at risk, in particular those who were displaced, but only through it’s ability to support the coordination and organisation of information already readily available for OCHA in its role in coordinating humanitarian efforts. OCHA praised the efforts of the volunteers in that they managed to establish in under 48 hours what it would have taken them (OCHA) more than a week to do without them, but unlike the Haiti Crisis Map it could not extend that support to many vulnerable people directly involved in the crisis.

It might be worth mentioning that even if mobile connectivity was present, a text number was available and there was no fear of reprisals no infrastructure was available to reach out to those deep within the conflict affected areas – OCHA couldn’t help people in Tripoli anyway.  The map’s function as support for only the humanitarian coordination efforts is also reflected in the fact that mapping was handed over to an OCHA team after 4 weeks and carried on only until 4th June, even though fighting continues to ravage Libya.   It is evident that mapping in conflict related crises, therefore, poses greater challenges than mapping for disaster related crises.  The technology was not able to transcend the severe censorship placed on the Libyan people by a Gaddafi desperate to hold on to his control.

Whilst mapping in conflict affected areas has it’s limitations, it has not been extensively researched as to how maps might be used to predict where conflict might arise. Global MapAid works to map instances of poverty across the world in order to help target poverty relief efforts. The relationship between, poverty, food insecurity and conflict has been well documented and mapping poverty to target poverty relief efforts could help in mitigating conflict related crises.

Maps relating to the Libya Crisis include:

Libya Crisis Map – SBTF

MapAction have a 6 page catalogue of Libya crisis related maps

Tripoli Prisons Map

The battle for Tripoli and the Search for Gaddafi Map

For further information:

Libya Crisis Map Report, Standby Task Force, 2011

OCHA Lessons Learned – Collaboration with VTCs in Libya and Japan, 2011

Standby Task Force Blog

Ushahidi Blog

Global MapAid

Reports on this week’s advance by rebel forces on Tripoli have been marred by uncertainty and misinformation on the power and position of both opposition and pro-Gaddafi forces.  Reports coming from within Gaddafi strongholds of the city suggest that there is still a heavy presence of pro-Gaddafi supporters armed and ready to fight.  Saif Al-Islam, the son of Gaddafi initially said to have been captured by rebels, gave a defiant interview to members of the international press confirming that many in the city were still ready to fight in support of the Gaddafi family.

Because members of the international press cannot move freely and safely throughout Tripoli it’s difficult for them to accurately establish the realities of this final fight.  One solution however to this challenge is to create a crisis map.  Crisis maps enable us to get a better and fuller picture of crises as they unfold.    Crisis maps work through crowd-sourcing reports from inside the affected area.  The information is verified by several reports offering identical information and is then marked out on a map of the area.

Several organisations have been responsible for creating online Libya crisis maps including Global Map Aid, Ushahidi and ICT4Peace.  You can find these maps in the link section of this site.

If you are in Libya and want to provide information to support the Google Map: The Battle for Tripoli, LIBYA you can tweet information to @k_thos.

The mobile revolution

Posted: August 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

Christopher Kedzie wrote in 1997, back at the start of the internet age, that “totalitarian societies face a dilemma: either they try to stifle [information and communication] technologies and thereby fall further behind in the new industrial revolution, or else they permit these technologies and see their totalitarian control inevitably eroded.  In fact, they do not have a choice, because they will never be able entirely to block the tide of technological advance.” Kedzie was one of many to express certainty in the power of the technological revolution to invite freedom to the masses and force erosion of the old order.  Whilst authoritarian resistance has been strong and censorship heavy the strength of this ‘tide of technological advance’ cannot be overstated; Although internet-based revolution is still largely an activity of the global elite, the ubiquitous mobile phone has invited new resistance and new freedoms across the world, most recently in North Africa and the Middle East.

The reason for the pervasive spread of mobile telephony worldwide as compared with fixed line telephony and fixed line internet is a simple case of economics; Infrastructural cost for the provision of mobile services is a fraction of that of fixed line services where miles and miles of fibre optic cables have to be laid and in places where government is unaccountable, corrupt or disaggregated and funding mismanaged, the provision of telecommunications is low on a long and convoluted list of priorities.  Also, the provision of mobile service and communication towers is usually privately funded by cellular mobile providers and so does not need to be a budgetary concern for governments.

Authoritarian states like Libya, however, who maintain a protectionist approach to communications, have kept the mobile services under state control.  The main providers of mobile services in Libya are Libyana (ليبيانا ), founded in 2003 and New Orbit (المدار الجديد ), founded in 1996, both state owned and operated.  According to the Libyan General Information Authority’s Statistical Handbook for 2009 (p254), Libyana & New Orbit provided nearly 7 million mobile service subscriptions in that same year covering “more than 95% of all cities, villages and oases and the desert road and the oil fields and most of the towns and roads of the Great Jamahiriya” ( Arabic Wikipedia, 2011). Other sources have suggested a slightly lower figure, but for all intents and purposes the rate of mobile saturation in Libya is over 100%.

Mobile Phones and Protest

The rise of the mobile phone has meant not only an easier and wider access to vital market information, helping to improve livelihoods for people in transitional and developing economies, but also to information about the geopolitical mechanism of global trading systems and the inequity it produces.   A now wider understanding of economic injustices is supporting grassroots tensions.  The mobile phone also enables an open platform on which to express grievances about these inequities between community members and the wider world and, beyond this, a platform on which to organise and disseminate information about protests quickly and efficiently and before anyone in authority might notice and disable the communication.  In 2002 Howard Rheingold coined the phrase ‘Smart Mobs‘ to describe just this: “when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation.”

Mobile broadband and smart phones have facilitated a wider access to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and so called ‘people-powered’ political movements facilitated by the likes of  Nearly 10% of those living in Arab States subscribe to Mobile broadband (ITU, 2011).   Schmidt and Cohen predicted: “Governments will be caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, armed with virtually nothing but cell phones, take part in mini-rebellions that challenge their authority” (2010) and the evidence of this has been globally widespread over the last 8 months.  Open source software like Frontline SMS makes it simple to send information from one computer or mobile phone to many instantly.

In Libya, during the early protests and through the conflict, mobile phones with video function have been used to document government supported atrocities and acts of violence against peaceful protesters as well as providing footage of front line activities via Youtube and other video sharing communities.  This type of citizen journalism serves an important role in situations where objective news may not be possible, as in Libya where the state control not only telecommunication services, but also broadcast and print medias, and may act as supporting evidence in convicting individuals of  war crimes in the aftermath of conflict.

Mobile Phones in Conflict

Mobile phones through political crisis carry the potential for being a vital communication tool, with their multi-functionality and portability; With a mobile phone a person has the power to communicate about their personal safety, to organise provisions, to communicate conflict news and to organise support & aid to name just a few uses.

During the election crisis that took place in Kenya in 2008 mobile phones were used to protect  household income.  The M-Pesa mobile banking system was used to help safely manage remittances coming from diaspora communities.  Whilst not widely researched Graham Sherbut studied the impact of remittances through conflict and suggests; “In the midst of conflict (and after conflict has subsided), this income preserves some degree of household security” and that remittances can “bolster [household] economic security in the midst of renewed conflict” (2009).

Limitations and Censorship of the Mobile Phone

Whilst the mobile phone is perhaps the single most powerful communication tool through crises, the potential is all at once rendered obsolete when totalitarian authorities wield power over the service provision.  There are a number of ways that authoritarian states can disrupt mobile phone services;  They may choose simply to cut the service as they did in Libya in February of this year.  Alternatively, the airwaves can be jammed by running radio waves over mobile frequencies to cause enough interference so as to disable the communication.

Privacy and security are major issues through conflict and mobile phones are susceptible to hacking attacks and government sponsored phone tracking programmes such as are reportedly being used in China.  Alongside hacking & tracking, pro-government propaganda is spread as easily as protest information via SMS.  The Centre for Policy Alternatives have put together a guide to Digital Security and Privacy which highlights things for human rights activists to consider when communicating through mobile technology.

Bypassing Censorship

Methods for bypassing service disruptions are, as with internet service attacks, extremely limited.  Peer to peer mobile networks via devices which are bluetooth enabled, for example, are highly secure methods of transferring information but cover only short distances.   The Commotion Wireless software I discussed in my last article would be another viable option, but, as Thomas Gideon of the Open Technology Intitative explained to me, a “USRP [Universal Software Radio Peripheral] is the necessary hardware for integrating 2G telephone access into the mesh [network]”.

In Benghazi local telecommunication engineers have re-established mobile services through reconfiguring the network, but this was down to the fact that the subscriber information was, by chance, held regionally as well as at the head office in Tripoli.

A final point to consider is that when managing emergency communication through conflict “there is an increased need for authoritative official information” (D. Coyle & P. Meier, 2009).  Knowing who your messages are coming from and whether the information being provided is timely and accurate is vital to positive outcomes in crisis situations   Authentication of mobile messages could be a serious challenge for those responsible for managing humanitarian crises.

Further reading and information:

 Sanjana Hattotuwa – ICT4Peace

The Centre for Policy Alternatives

Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, Howard Rheingold, 2002.

Assessing the Development Impact of Remittances in a Conflict Environment, Graham Sherbut, 2009

New Technologies for emergencies and conflicts, Diane Coyle & Patrick Meier, 2009

I recently discussed the currently limited prospects of overcoming internet censorship of ‘kill switch’ proportions and about clandestine outfits as the only viable solution to making a high speed internet network in the face of this type of censorship…and then I stumbled upon an article in the New York Times about the US governments attempt to support these clandestine operations by packing wireless networking components into a suitcase to smuggle across borders to rebels ready to set up ‘shadow’ networks. The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative (OTI), with the support of funding by the US State Department, has created the very tidy ‘Internet in a Suitcase’. Whilst there is scepticism about the US government’s actual intentions, whether they are acting as genuine philanthropist or simply intelligence gathering, it is still a very exciting prospect.

The suitcase contains:

  • USB Memory Stick, which holds the networks software
  • A repeater, which bridges GSM phones and WIFI mesh networks
  • A mobile phone, which also holds the networks software and can be transferred anonymously between phones using bluetooth
  • A variety of high power antennas and receivers
  • Disks of software
  • An easy to use manual

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The idea is that the suitcase will be discreetly passed across borders into the hands of dissidents where they will begin to construct a network of people, through which to disseminate the software ultimately creating an ad hoc WIFI network which sits outside the national internet infrastructure. The hardware constituents play much less of a role than the software, which is also available as a simple download. Unfortunately, the overview of the project and software information is currently unavailable in Arabic, when it does become available I will post the link in the bypassing section of this site. What’s nice is that, whilst the OTI remain elusive about how they intend to deploy the suitcases, the software can be used right now on and between normal GSM phones making it extremely relevant for countries like Libya where traditional internet use is a fringe, or rather elite, activity, but where nearly everyone has a mobile phone.

The challenges the OTI could face would be: 1/ overcoming scepticism about the US government’s political intentions; 2/ finding a viable way to deploy the suitcases; and 3/ avoiding being caught out.

For further information visit the Open Technology Initiative website.

The OTI are currently looking for Arabic speakers  for translation work.  People are asked to join one of their mailing lists to find out how they can help:

Developers List

General Discussion List

Announcement Only List

Communicate via IRC in #oswc on (or for a web client).

On the 3rd March the Libyan government took the unprecedented step of making the internet indefinitely unavailable for all but a few within its borders using ‘kill switch’ censorship tactics.  Whilst ‘kill switch’ censorship has been used before (and since, in Syria July 3rd), in Nepal 2005, Burma 2007 and Egypt earlier this year, what is unique about the situation in Libya is the duration of which the internet has been stifled.  The implications of this kind of action are many: 1/ The information available to the wider community becomes limited to that which is produced by state controlled media; 2/It acts to disable the spread of information that upholds opposition ideologies and paradigm shifts; 3/It acts to disable international lobby potential.  The internet can and has been used to raise international awareness of human rights violations and opposition political groups and to mobilise international pressure against offending governments. More recently popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been used to widen the reach. Governments tend to exercise more behavioural restraint when being judged by the international community at large and other more powerful entities like the UN and US government.  Cutting the internet cuts some of the exposure from opposition voices within the offending country (Chowdry, 2008); and  4/ Being connected to information is vital for lifelines of the revolution, those with important roles in the crisis (doctors & medical staff, aid agency teams and active rebels) must seek alternative and perhaps less efficient ways of communicating.

Circumvention methods for ‘first-generation’ censorship practices, such as firewalling are fairly extensive and straightforward.  The Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto has put together a user friendly guide to bypassing 1st – gen censorship; Everyone’s guide to by-passing internet censorship  (2007), which is available in several languages, although I am still awaiting a response from the Citizen’s Lab as to whether the guide is available in Arabic.  If and when a copy becomes available I will post the link on the links section.  It’s a very succinct easily digestible guide on how to circumvent censorship using simple already available/downloadable tunnelling software.  The guide outlines the risks and benefits of using public vs private computers for circumvention and the role of ‘outsiders’ in circumvention support.  It discusses in some detail currently available circumvention software.

From my own research, other software includes but is not limited to hidemyass, hotspot, yourfreedom and disposable email addresses (often included within the circumvention software) including hushmail, spamex, spamgourmet, E4ward, Gishpuppy, Mailnator and Yahoo! Mail Classic (keeping in mind that in 2003 Yahoo! helped the Chinese government to expose and incarcerate Li Zhi, for his role in online message board criticisms of the regime, by handing over details of his email account to the authorities).  For net activists, the Citizen’s Lab have also produced a guide for anonymously publishing online.  There are as many techniques for circumventing as there are for censoring.  Censorship and circumvention is a perpetual cycle; bypassing ‘kill switch’ censorship is the new challenge for hackers of the future.

The current circumvention techniques for bypassing ‘kill switch’ service attacks, such as the blackholing of IP addresses that has happened in Libya, are slightly more old school and much more limited; I’ve put together a small list of ideas which I have compiled from various online sources.  The easiest way to access the internet when connectivity has been damaged centrally is to use dial-up internet.  PC World have written a great article on what you need to get connected.  Whilst it may sound simple, having the right equipment and software is essential to make the connection and this may require advanced planning and preparation.

Internet Relay Chat is a kind of internet text messaging done in real-time. This kind of messaging can be sent to groups or privately to individuals, but it requires both software and a dial up server – both would already need to be in place to  make it possible. As an alternative, Point-to-Point (serverless) chat is available through Microsoft NetMeeting, ACHAT, and others. “ This allows a direct communication between any two computers that can ‘see’ each other on the network.  The network in this case could definitely consist of one computer calling another directly, over the phone lines” (Ketcham, 2011).

Other, more prevalent, forms of technology are currently being used through internet blackouts and where the internet is not commonly used; Mobile phones, whilst also being subject to disrupted services & monitoring, are the most obvious and widespread means of communicating and ham-radio has recently been employed as an alternative.

More modern technologies for circumventing this type of censorship do not currently exist and according to Richard Stiennon of IT-Harvest, overcoming this type of censorship would involve Freedom Fighters building “clandestine Internet infrastructure including satellite links and cables strung across borders,” which is precisely what is happening now in Benghazi, as we begin to see new independent media emergingWirelessU is an organisation working towards training individuals how to set up their own wireless communications.  They have produced a guide to wireless networking, Wireless Networking in the Developing World: A Practical Guide to Building Low-Cost Telecommunications Infrastructure.  This is a comprehensive and detailed 425p manual on wireless networking which is not for the faint-hearted.  The book supports people to build high speed data networks using locally available resources: “Using inexpensive off-the-shelf equipment, you can build high speed data networks that connect remote areas together, provide broadband network access in areas that even dialup does not exist, and ultimately connect you and your neighbors to the global Internet” (2007).

Satellite communications already play a significant role in crisis.  Humanitarian organisations working in crisis situations depend on satellite technology & the organisations who are responsible for setting up the technology like the UN-ITU, Telecoms sans Frontieres and HumaninetSatellite services & kits are also being sold to individuals for their personal needs.  For most people living in Libya satellite coms would be the more pricey option, but for organisations and businesses, who have a communications budget, satellite is a straightforward and effective option.

For Distributed Denial of Service Attacks (DDoS) there are no circumvention techniques, rather an organisation must tactically prepare and make provisions for the event.  The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, discuss methods for mitigation in their article on The Distributed Denial of Service Attacks Against Independent Media and Human Rights Sites:

-Application attacks can be strongly mitigated by replacing complex content management systems (CMSes) with static HTML or by adding aggressive caching systems to deliver content at the expense of interactivity.

 – All organizations should carefully consider whether to host their sites on a free, highly DDoS resistant hosting service like Blogger, even at the cost of prestige, functionality and possible intermediary censorship. Organizations that choose to host their own sites should plan for attacks in advance, even if those plans include acceptable levels of downtime.

 – Organizations that choose to host their own sites should use systems to detect attacks and, when necessary, degrade site performance and retreat to backup hosting on a free, highly DDoS-resistant hosting service like Blogger. Simple modules for popular content management systems could automate this process and minimize the disruption of an attack.

 – Human rights funders should identify and support local experts in communities of the attack sites, since defending against DDoS and other attacks requires not only technical skill but also knowledge about and trust of each of the local communities.

 – Human rights funders should consider funding a coordinator to identify both local experts for human rights communities and core network organizations willing to help human rights sites and to help local experts and core networks organizations work with one another. 

 – The human rights community should work with Internet service providers (ISPs) and online service providers (OSPs) to identify providers who will work to protect sites from DDoS and who will agree not to remove controversial content unless required by law.

 – We propose a broad public discussion of a range of policy responses to the rise of DDOS attacks against independent media organizations and human rights groups, with a view toward a sustainable long-term approach that balances the range of legitimate interests involved.

(E. Zuckerman, et al, December 2010)

Preparation is the key to communicating through Service Attacks.  Stiennon  recommends Threat Based Management approach.  He says: “Threat Based Management (TBM) is an alternative to risk based management (RBM).  In RBM you identify critical assets first, then determine how much to invest to protect them. This is actually hard to do as every ICT asset is considered critical by someone.   TBM starts by evaluating the threat and taking measures to thwart the threat before it becomes overpowering.  Phishing, spyware, and cyber crime are three examples of threats.  State sponsored cyber espionage is the current threat that organisations should be countering. Government “kill switches” are a threat to freedom of information and communication during crisis. Unfortunately there are rarely official organisations in place to consider this threat before the crisis appears.”  Like the Berkman Center, Stiennon suggests a need for collaborative organisation to address the issue of ‘preparedness’ in communicating through crisis.

What would you put in your internet crisis kit?  To submit ideas

For more information on this topic:

Humaninet –

IT Harvest –

Infowar Monitor –

The Citizen Lab –

Arbor Networks’ Infrastructure Security Reports –

For further reading on this topic:

Distributed Denial of Service Attacks Against Independent Media and Human Rights Sites, Ethan Zuckerman, Hal Roberts, Ryan McGrady, Jillian York, John Palfrey, The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University
December 2010

Everyone’s Guide to Bypassing Internet Censorship: For Citizens Worldwide, The Citizen Lab, 2007.

Wireless Networking in the Developing World: A practical guide to planning and building low-cost telecommunications infrastructure, Flickenger et al, 2007.

Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace, Ronald J. Deibert, John G. Palfrey, Rafal Rohozinski and Jonathan Zittrain eds, 2010.

The Role of the Internet in Burma’s Saffron Revolution, Mridul Chowdhury, 2008

How to Beat a Web Censor, But How Censors Could Still Shut Down a Site, Sanjana Hattotuwa, 2011

I originally intended this theme to cover both the silencing of the Internet and mobile phones by authoritarian regimes, but decided that in order to do a very dense subject justice I will leave the topic of mobile phone interruptions for a future blog and focus only on how governments stifle and cut internet services within their borders and internationally.

Once hailed as the ultimate platform for freedom of expression and democracy, the internet has, over the course of its short history, proven itself to be as susceptible to state controls as any of the other traditional forms of information dissemination (Goldsmith & Wu, 2006).  It is, by nature of its reach and speed, a larger threat to sovereignty and state control than any other media source ever has been.  It is no wonder, therefore, that states with a poor track record of freedom and fairness would go to elaborate measures to stifle its influence. Whilst a thorn in the side of totalitarianism, the internet is necessary evil for those states wanting to make gains in a now totally global and wired economy.  China fights hardest with this duplicity; it maintains the most elaborate system of internet control and censorship in the world – not surprising as it boasts the most internet users in the world: 389 Million (CIA world factbook, 2011), and an equally grand track record for human rights violations.

Libya, on the other hand, whilst comparable to China in its human rights offences, cannot be compared in its rate of internet saturation: 354,000 users.  As stated in the last blog entry that equates to less than 6% of the population having access to the internet and its censorship techniques are somewhat less involved.

There are various methods employed by authoritarian states (and non-authoritarian states) for controlling content and access to content on the internet.  Whilst we may visualise the internet as a web  in which information can navigate around any road blocks standing in the way, it is important that we understand two faults with this idea:  1/most people who use the internet are not techies or even a little techno-savvy and so have neither the knowledge nor the language for rerouting information and; 2/the internet has international gateways through which information passes from one sovereign state to another and whilst we think of cyberspace as borderless, the infrastructure, which makes it possible, is not.  Instead, the information is passed via chokepoints, nodes and routers all of which serve as loci of control on the internet information path (Diebert, 2007).

The main techniques for censorship are Content Analysis techniques, Address Blocking techniques, Take-Downs, Service Attacks:

Content analysis techniques include Inclusion Filtering where a select number of preapproved sites are allowed through the filter and Exclusion Filtering where sites are restricted through blacklisting.   Local language filtering is more prevalent than say filtering of English language sites.  Content analysis works through analysing site and URL content to find accepted or prohibited keywords.

Programmes such as Smartfilter, Websense & FortiGate are available off the shelf for states and organisations censorship needs.  These offer fairly blanket approaches to censorship, and because the programmes work by filtering general categories (eg ‘politics/opinion’ ) this means that sites which may be acceptable or even desirable are accidentally filtered out.  Ironically, the companies defining these censorship categories and offering & selling these products are not ideologically despotic; in fact they are freedom-loving & American.   Contrary to Ronald Deibert’s findings (2007), in which he directly links Websense to Yemen authorities, Websense’s corporate social responsibility document denies selling to regimes intent on silencing its citizens:

We recognize that some governments restrict access to the Internet by their citizens. Websense does not sell to governments or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are engaged in government-imposed censorship. Government-mandated censorship projects will not be engaged by Websense. If Websense does win business and later discovers that it is being used by a government, or by ISPs based on government rule, to engage in censorship of the Web and Web content we will remove our technology and capabilities from the project (Websense Social Responsibility Policy, 2011). 

How they would execute removal of their technology and capabilities is not made explicit, but it is certainly an interesting proposition.  But whether with Websense, another brand name or some homemade programme this type of censorship is achieved on various institutional levels from Internet Service Providers (ISP) to organisations and individual computers.

Address blocking is a national measure which takes place at the international gateway or through ISPs.  Routers are configured to block certain Internet Protocol (IP) addresses or domain names.

If you come up against these kinds of blockade you are likely to receive an error page;  governments who are more transparent about their censorship policy may provide information about their censorship policy on the error page others may reroute to other websites.

Herdict Web,  is a unique project of Harvard University’s Berkman Centre, which uses the idea of crowd-sourcing to monitor website filtering and blocking.

The OpenNet Intitiative (ONI), who have been tracking and monitoring internet censorship techniques worldwide, breakdown filtering into the following categories: political (eg opposition party sites, minority rights sites), social (eg pornographic and/or fleshy sites, religiously sensitive sites), conflict/security (eg bomb making sites).  In 2006, the ONI, described Libya’s internet filtering programme as largely political in terms of content and suggested that the level of filtering of these types of sites was substantial.  A follow up study and subsequent report in 2009 revealed that, whilst the type of content being filtered was the same, it had become evident that substantially less filtering was happening.  They suggested that this was due to efforts on the part of the regime to move towards more openness.   Gaddafi’s own son, Seif, complained in 2006 that “in all frankness and transparency, there is no freedom of the press in Libya; actually there is no press, even, and there is no real ‘direct people’s democracy’ on the ground” (Libya Internet Censorship Report, 2009).

Another method of censorship is to remove search results.  If governments can find ways of gaining compliance from search engine services, they are also able to omit undesirable websites from search engines -surprisingly common amongst even major search engine services with vested financial interest in the censoring country (Goldsmith & Wu, 2006).

Take-Downs work when authorities have powers of arbitration over web content hosts and simply force hosts to remove undesirable websites (ONI, 2011).

Another more pathological means of censorship is Induced Self-Censorship where fear and ideology control censorship at the level of the individual.  Authoritarian governments can close down internet cafés for allowing users to surf illicit content and arrests are made of those involved in producing, facilitating and contributing to illicit content.   According to the same ONI report on Libyan Internet Censorship, “ Internet users in Libya have told the Arabic media that security personnel and Internet café operators closely monitor Internet cafés and often harass Internet users. Several Internet cafés have been shut down by security, which has prompted café operators to do the monitoring themselves to avoid being shut down. Internet users also reported that notes are posted in Internet cafés warning users against accessing opposition Web sites” (2009).

The type of censorship increasingly deployed in situations of serious political contention and crisis on a large scale are Service Attacks.  Service Attacks, also known as ‘Kill Switch’tactics, occur at the internet’s chokepoint, the sovereign state.   Deibert & Rohonzinski have suggested that this type of censorship represents a ‘just-in-time blocking’  approach.

Just-in-time blocking differs from the first-generation national filtering practices of countries like China and Iran in several significant ways. First, and most importantly, just-in-time blocking is temporally fixed. Unlike the evolving block lists used by national firewalls, just-in-time blocking occurs only at times when the information being sought has a specific value or importance. Usually, this will mean that blocking is imposed at times of political change, such as elections, or other potential social flashpoints (important anniversaries or times of social unrest) (2008).

Service attacks can be loosely described as a complete denial of access.  More clearly there are several methods for executing service attacks: Distributed denial of service attacks, cutting the power at web servers location, sabotaging fibre optic cables, misconfiguring routing tables, geolocation filters (Deibert, 2007).  Richard Stiennon of IT Harvest, an expert in Cyberwarfare says “The primary means of killing Internet access is to update the primary Internet routers so that all of the IP addresses associated with particular “Autonomous Systems” (AS) are re-routed to nowhere… While that is the most elegant way, a country can also just use a Firewall to limit Internet access such as Myanmar does. China and Australia are other examples.  Or, a country could sever the fibre that comes into their territory – drastic and does not stop satellite connectivity”.

Geolocation attacks work when a server denies requests from internet users based on the actual location of a computer’s IP address.   An interesting example of this type of attack backfiring can be found on Stefan Geens blog, Ogle Earth, Oh the irony: Google Earth ban in Sudan is due to US export restrictions 20th April, 2007 (Deibert, 2007) (And the follow up, Google Earth coming soon to Sudan, Iran and Cuba 20th March, 2010).

A Distributed Denial of Service attack (DDoS) involves a coordinated effort to attack a site or service through saturating it with communication requests; the outcome is that the site performs unacceptably slowly or cannot be accessed at all. DDoS attacks, whilst enacted by the perpetrators of internet censorship, have also been used by online communities to attempt retaliation against them.

In the recent Egyptian version of ‘Kill Switch’ tactics some experts believe that is was a simple case of authorities calling the ISPs and telling them to cut the service.  Others have suggested that it was more than figuratively a kill switch – an actual breaker switch at the Ramses exchange caused the cessation.  The difference between what has happened in Libya versus what happened in Egypt is that, as James Cowie of Renesys puts it, Libya has ‘throttled’ the internet rather than killing it.  The internet is still very much available for those within the Gaddafi regime who want to use the information it provides, but it is being denied to the rest of the country.  This is a clear illustration of router misconfiguration at work.

Censorship in the internet age is both convoluted and complex and is ever evolving in response to circumvention techniques.  As Palfrey & Zittrain (2008) put it “a game of cat and mouse is well underway”.

Stay tuned for – Let’s make some noise: techniques for bypassing internet censorship

For any alterations or additions to this article contact

For more on this topic visit:

Further reading on this topic:

Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless world, Jack Goldsmith & Tim Wu, 2006

Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering,  Ronald Deibert, John Palfrey, Rafal Rohozinski, Jonathan Zittrain, eds., 2008.

Routledge Handbook of Internet Politics, Chadwick ed, 2009.

Keep your eyes peeled for the Cyber Roundtable.

Before we embark on a crusade to discover the technological methods and means to bypass the saboteurs of modern day telecommunications it’s important that we establish some realities about pre-crisis telecoms in Libya:

Whilst Libya has one of the best fixed line telecommunication infrastructures in Africa (Budde, 2011), the internet saturation rate remains at about 6%, comparatively low even to that of it’s defecting neighbours Egypt (at 25%) and Tunisia (at 33%), according to the CIA Worldfact book. It is also important to state that both mainline and cellular telecoms in Libya are state-owned and somewhat poorly maintained – telecoms in Africa leaves a lot to be desired! If we take this poor internet saturation rate at face value we might ask ourselves: ‘Why on earth would Gaddafi bother severing the internet? He must know it’s such a small number of people – he does own it after all! And why would he do this when it could have such crippling effects on the economy and his own personal wealth?’ The reality is that whilst internet penetration is low those who are most likely to have access to the internet are young, affluent and educated.  And as Margaret Mead, the American Anthropologist, is famously quoted as saying ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has’. The young have the time and the impetus to use internet based information to create change, especially when coupled with the catalysts of rising unemployment and poverty (According to CIA world factbook 30% of employable Libyans are unemployed and one third of the population lives on or below the poverty line).    Also those who are educated tend to be both credible and respected amongst the community.  It is also important to note that crippling the internet and telecoms generally means crippling the life lines for the revolution; Without vital communication, aid agencies, hospitals and those offering primary care for the injured and displaced can not so effectively or easily be of help, and this too may be a motivation for the regime to hamper communication paths.

But how can such a small group of people, incite a widespread uprising?  We know that broadcast media in Libya is also state-owned and very guarded, and that it has been a tool not only for censorship, but also for propaganda to create uncertainty for the general population about the facts and realities of the revolution. Censorship too has been applied across the internet in Libya;  The CPJ (Committee for the Protection of Journalists ) reported: “The media dutifully reflect state policies and do not allow news or views critical of Qaddafi or the government. Satellite television and the Internet are available, but the government blocks undesirable political Web sites. The Internet is one of the few avenues for independent writers and journalists, but the risks are exceedingly high. (2006)”. However, whilst it is only a small percentage of the population that have access to the internet and censorship stands in the place of free and fair information, the mobile phone is being used across the Middle East as blanket tool for the spread of information about the revolution; The mobile saturation rate in Libya is above 100% (CIA world factbook, 2011).   If well organised, information can spread from one to many, via SMS, in a small period of time and before authoritarian regimes have enough time to mobilise to stop the spread of the information (Doyle D., and P. Meier, 2009).  And like the Green Revolution in Iran, the successor to this current and amazing tidal wave of people-centred change across the Middle East, this revolution has been a cellular one. 

Mobile communication has been effective in the timely and widespread transfer of information between people and its significance can not be disputed.  All said we must remember that the mobile industry is not free from sabotage, being also controlled by members of the Libyan oligarchy and that the mobile phone, whilst seemingly the most effective medium for the spread of information about the revolution can also, conversely, be condemnatory in that linked to each individual mobile phone is a wealth of personal information and new phone tracking programmes help authoritarian regimes to track the movements of citizen and can help in incriminating and incarcerating defectors of the state – mobiles are not an anonymous way of communicating by any stretch of the imagination.  And mobile phones, like broadcast media, can also be used by regimes to spread propaganda.

The internet therefore, whilst not being necessarily widespread in use, plays a vital role as a source of outside and unbiased information for those living in closed societies. However, it is important that we understand its role as a companion to other more widespread technologies, such as mobile phones, for the timely passage of information through this crisis.

Some other things to consider: How do people use the information they receive via SMS and how do they validate it?  How has radio & pan-arab satallite laid the foundations for widespread acceptance of a paradigm shift? (A topic to be covered in a future blog)

For further information on the topic visit:

Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution by Howard Rheingold

Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet & Society

Oxford Internet Institute – Facebook Resistance? Understanding the role of the Internet in the Arab Revolutions

Manchester University’s Development Informatics Department, Working Papers, Internet Usage Under Authoritarian Regimes:

CIA World Factbook – Libya

OpenNetwork Initiative

Stay tuned for: The Sound of Silence: how governments cut/stifle internet & mobile telephone access.