Why Internet Censorship Doesn't Work

By Sublett

Cypherpunks in the early days of the internet used to say, "The internet perceives censorship as damage and routes around it." They were referring to the distributed nature of internet communications that prevents the entire network from going down when a single router fails. While this saying fell into disuse around the time Napster was getting sued to death, a new generation of internet protocols and web applications is now making information more free than ever.

The web site Wikileaks.org is a case in point. Set up for whistleblowers to post confidential documents, Wikileaks has become a major thorn in the side of the establishment. They have published the Guantanamo standard operating procedures and the rules of engagement for US forces in Iraq, among many other classified and otherwise incriminating papers. Recently they posted a spreadsheet detailing a tax evasion scam run by Bank Julius Baer (BJB), a Swiss bank with operations in the Cayman Islands. The scam involved fake insurance premiums that were deducted from the beneficiaries' taxable income and invested offshore. The spreadsheet included many beneficiaries' names, including the family of former president Gerald Ford.

In spite of the fact that authorities had known this information since 2003, BJB went ballistic. They obtained a court order in California forcing Wikileaks' domain registrar to de-list the wikileaks.org name. At the same time, in an astounding coincidence, Wikileaks was hit by a massive denial of service attack and a fire broke out at one of their web host providers. The result was a textbook example of why internet censorship doesn't work.

For starters Wikileaks.org could still be accessed through their IP address (88.80.13.160). On top of that the wikileaks.org.uk, wikileaks.de and wikileaks.cx domains were registered through different registrars and hosted with different providers and were always available. In addition to these technical defenses, volunteers from all over the world rushed to help out. Numerous web sites mirrored not only the BJB spreadsheet, but the rest of Wikileaks as well. The spreadsheet was also posted in CSV format to chatrooms and social networking sites whose users would otherwise never have heard of it. Bloggers and tech news sites picked up the story and introduced thousands of first-time readers to Wikileaks. By trying to censor damaging information, BJB succeeded only in spreading it further than it would ever have gone on its own.

In 2003, the Pentagon created their "Information Operations Roadmap," in which they refer to the internet as "an enemy weapons system." It's not hard to see why they think so. In fact, the only mystery is why they allowed the internet into the hands of the general public in the first place. As the internet continues to evolve and grow, we the enemy will find an increasingly powerful weapons system at our disposal.